Sunday, December 4, 2016
What Light by Jay Asher
Sierra's family runs a Christmas tree farm in Oregon. Every year on the Thanksgiving break, Sierra and her parents make the journey to California to set up their Christmas tree stand in a small town three hours south of San Francisco. Every year it means temporarily leaving behind her life and friends, Rachel and Elizabeth in Oregon for one month. From Thanksgiving until Christmas, Sierra and her parents live out of a trailer, selling the trees they grow on their farm in Oregon. Their family's Christmas tree business was started by her father's father and her parents met on the lot because her mom's family were annual customers. From the time she was a year old, Sierra has accompanied her parents to California. However, this year might be their last. Sierra's family have selling trees at their lot for over twenty-five years but competition from supermarkets and other retailers who now sell trees has cut into their profits. Instead, Sierra's family might have to close the stand for the last time this year and sell to those vendors next year.
In California Sierra has a best friend too. Heather's family lived next door to Sierra's grandparents on her mom's side and when they would visit her mom's family the two girls quickly became friends. So traveling to California means Sierra will at least have a friend to connect with. The day before Thanksgiving Sierra and her mom drive down to California to meet up with her dad. At the tree lot Sierra settles into their cramped trailer. Andrew, one of the young guys her father employs, asked Sierra out last year. However, Sierra refused telling him she wasn't allowed to date anyone who worked for her father. This has made things awkward between them. Besides Sierra feels it would not be worth it to date someone for the short time she's in California, only to have to leave Christmas morning.
After their traditional Thanksgiving dinner with Heather's family the two girls head up to Cardinal's Peak to check on the Christmas trees they've planted over the past six years. Heather tries to convince Sierra to date someone for the month that she is in California so she has someone to double date with. She finds her boyfriend, Devon, boring and plans to dump him after Christmas. But Sierra does not want to hurt some guy by dumping him right after Christmas when her family leaves. Sierra tells Heather that this may be their last year for the Christmas tree stand.
Then one day the Christmas tree lot is visited by a very cute guy whose smile brings out a dimple. And Sierra begins to reconsider her moratorium on dating. The next morning when Heather visits, Sierra tells her about the cute boy who came by the lot. Sierra's description of his cute dimple tells Heather immediately who he is and she's not pleased. She tells Sierra his name is Caleb and that he is not a good choice for a holiday romance. When Sierra presses Heather to reveal what she's heard, Heather tells her that there is a rumor that Caleb attacked his sister with a knife. Sierra is horrified but relieved to discover Caleb's sister is alive. Caleb returns to the tree lot to purchase another tree and this time Sierra gets a chance to meet him. When she refuses to shake his hand, Caleb suspects that someone has told her about him but they part amicably. On her way home Sierra sees Caleb purchasing another tree from Hoppers family-owned tree lot. Puzzled she stops and asks Caleb what he's doing. They tease one another and Sierra admits to having heard something about him but Caleb brushes her off telling her they can just be friends.
When Heather and Sierra go for breakfast at Breakfast Express Sierra learns that Caleb works at the diner. While they are at the diner, Sierra and Heather discover that Caleb is buying Christmas trees for needy families. The makes Sierra feel conflicted about what she's heard about Caleb and the Caleb she knows. The next day he stops by the tree lot and tells Sierra that he buys the trees because "...it's nice to give people what they want instead of only the necessities." He tells her he uses his tips from the job at Breakfast Express to buy the trees. When Caleb suggests she accompany him the next time he takes a tree to a needy family, Sierra agrees.
Sierra begins to realize she's falling for Caleb as she struggles to understand how the boy she knows fits with the rumours surrounding him. Even more difficult is the fact that any relationship started will have to end when her family returns to Oregon after Christmas. Or will it?
What Light is an uplifting Christmas romance about a girl who gives a boy a second chance when no one else will. Sierra is determined to enjoy what will likely be her last Christmas in the small California town that her parents sell Christmas trees. While her friends both in California and Oregon are encouraging her to find a holiday boyfriend, Sierra's not keen on the idea - that is until she meets the very cute Caleb. But Caleb has a bad reputation as the boy who pulled a knife on his sister. As Sierra meets Caleb over the period of a few days she begins to struggle with two very conflicting images of the boy she knows - the one who works and spends his tips on Christmas trees for needy families and the boy who supposedly attacked his sister with a knife.
Despite her best friend, Heather's reservations Sierra decides to give Caleb a chance. But she decides "I need to know more before I let myself get any closer to him." Her parents too have reservations mainly because they know Sierra will be leaving after Christmas and that it's likely their tree stand will not be back next year. At this point they don't know about Caleb's behaviour towards his sister years ago. As Sierra continues to meet him she struggles with her mounting attracting to Caleb. "I like Caleb. I like him even more every time I see him. And this can only lead to disaster..." When Caleb and Sierra deliver a tree to a needy family and they are less than appreciative, Caleb tells her he understands this family's situation. "Just so you know, I am very aware of how mean they were about getting a free tree. I have to believe, though, that everyone is allowed a bad day." Caleb is willing to give the couple the benefit of the doubt, something he hasn't been given in by anyone in the town. This has led to him being isolated and ostracized.
Eventually Sierra learns what really happened between Caleb and his sister Abby and she's understandably horrified. Yet she's also very empathetic. "The way his jaw tenses, I know he's cried over this many times. I consider everything he's told me. How hard all of this has been for his mom and his sister, as well as for him. I know this should scare me a little, but somehow it doesn't, because I do believe he couldn't hurt anyone. Everything about him makes me believe that."
Caleb, who is frustrated and hurt at losing his best friend Jeremiah over what happened, tells Sierra that they mustn't judge Jeremiah's family because they don't know the full story. Sierra notes that all of her friends did exactly that when she told them about Caleb. "Everyone reacted so fast. Everyone had an opinion without ever hearing from Caleb." Sierra believes that if Caleb's sister has forgiven him then she has no right to hold this over him especially since he obviously regrets his actions.
Concern for Caleb leads Sierra to confront Jeremiah about his break with Caleb. Her parents have always considered forgiveness and the belief that people can change for the better to be important. She encourages Jeremiah to talk to his mom and to consider the possibility that Caleb may have changed. Despite her willingness to give Caleb a chance, Sierra still feels intense conflict over their growing relationship because she hasn't told him about the strong possibility that she will not be back next year. She tells her friend Rachel, "Now that I know it's not wrong to like him...I obsess over whether that makes it right. I'm only here for a couple more weeks."
When Andrew tells Sierra's parents about Caleb, her parents worry that's she's becoming involved with someone who might be harmful. This angers Sierra and she decides to confront her parents about how they view Caleb. Sierra tells her parents that they seem to feel that there is no room for mercy, that what Caleb did should mark him for life. "He's been labeled this...thing...by so many people for so long. And they'd rather believe the worst of it than talk to him about it. Or just forgive him." Sierra tells her parents that she's "been raised to believe that everyone can become better".
It is Sierra's determination to trust Caleb and to give him the benefit of the doubt that help him to prove himself worthy of her. And her making the decision to do this leads others to do so as well. Jeremiah decides to take a stand for their friendship and visit Caleb against his mother's wishes. And it is Jeremiah who later on returns the favour and tells Sierra to forget the "logic" because "logic doesn't know what you want."
Jay Asher has crafted a believable, strong character in Sierra. Asher avoids making Caleb a character readers pity. Instead he too is seen as strong but perhaps a little battle-weary with trying to overcome his bad reputation. Through Sierra, readers explore the themes of forgiveness, mercy and redemption and are forced to consider questions like How long should someone be marked by a mistake? and Can a person really change? Asher never gets too heavy-handed and even Andrew's jealousy is muted as the story focuses more on how Sierra deals with him and the effects his actions have on her and her family.
The novel ends on a strong positive note, filled with hope for the future. What Light is good holiday read, not too heavy, but with some interesting themes and nice touch of romance to lighten things up. Well worth picking up for the Christmas holidays and beyond.
What Light by Jay Asher
New York: Razorbill, an imprint of Penguin Random House 2016